People boarded up beach homes, schools closed and officials ordered evacuations along the East Coast on Wednesday as Hurricane Matthew tore through the Bahamas and took aim at Florida, where the governor urged coastal residents to "leave now" if they were able.
Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph, and it was expected to be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. At least 11 deaths in the Caribbean have been blamed on the storm.
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In South Carolina, traffic was bumper-to-bumper as people fled on Interstate 26, the main artery out of Charleston. Gasoline was hard to come by, with at least half a dozen stations along the coast out of fuel and long lines at others.
"We're staying because we have to board the house up," Buff Schwab said as she wheeled in a cooler filled with food she purchased the night before at a local supermarket.
Storm shutters were closed on a number of palatial homes overlooking Charleston's Civil War-era Battery along the water. Carriage tours made their way down streets that were largely empty of traffic.
"I'm worried. I've gotten a lot of calls to go home," Schwab said of her relatives in North Carolina. "It is what it is and we're going to sit it out and put a lot of food in the crock pot."
In Florida, theme parks watched the storm closely and told customers to anticipate altered hours. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations were to take place Wednesday in the central part of the state.
"If you're able to go early, leave now," Gov. Rick Scott said.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew — at one point a fierce Category 5 — will remain a powerful storm at least through Thursday night as it nears Florida. The Hurricane Center said that while maximum winds had decreased slightly, the fluctuation in intensity was expected and some strengthening is forecast in coming days.
Forecasters said there was a danger of life-threatening storm surge inundation along parts of the Florida's east coast.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced plans starting Wednesday afternoon to evacuate a quarter million people, not counting tourists, from the coast.
Haley said 315 were dispatched to two major coastal counties to help with evacuations. The National Guard and other law enforcement agents are mobilized, ready to ensure an orderly evacuation.
"We ask everybody to please be safe," Haley said, warning those thinking of staying put that they could be risking the life of a law enforcement officer if they had to be rescued later.
In Florida, a message on Walt Disney World's website Wednesday said all of its theme parks and resorts are "currently operating under normal conditions" as officials continue to monitor the storm. They advised those who plan on visiting Disney to monitor news outlets for the latest weather information.
Officials at SeaWorld in Orlando announced on its website that officials "anticipate altered hours due to Hurricane Matthew."
Government officials are worried about complacency, especially in South Florida, which hasn't seen a major hurricane in 11 years.
Officials hope to avoid a repeat of Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina, which caused major damage to South Florida in 2005, and Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, leveled much of the city of Homestead in 1992.
The Miami forecasters issued a hurricane warning for the area north of Golden Beach near Fort Lauderdale to Sebastian Inlet, meaning hurricane force winds of 74 mph or higher are expected within two days. A hurricane watch is also in effect from Sebastian Inlet to Fernandina Beach, meaning hurricane force winds could occur.
In Brevard County, officials said shelters will begin opening at 4 p.m. In addition, Cape Canaveral Hospital near the coast began moving patients to inland hospitals.
Hurricane Hermine became the first to strike Florida since Wilma in 2005 when it hit the eastern Panhandle on Sept. 2 as a Category 1 storm, causing one death, storm surge damage to beachfront homes and downed trees and powerlines. That 11-year lull between storms hitting Florida was the longest on record.
The last storm to hit Florida from the Atlantic side was Katrina, which struck on its way to devastating the Gulf coast.
Wilma made landfall as a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds, killing five people as it pushed from southwest Florida, through the Everglades and into the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area, causing an estimated $21 billion in damage and leaving thousands of residents without power for more than a week. It concluded a two-year span when a record eight hurricanes hit the state.
Governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina declared states of emergency, and the White House said President Barack Obama canceled a campaign and health care events in Florida on Wednesday.
Kay reported from Miami Beach. Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins, Jack Jones and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Bruce Smith in Charleston, South Carolina; and Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.